Can Your Toddler Understand The Complexities Of Laughter?


Last night Sienna and I watched an episode of “Team Umizoomi” before night-night. The episode dealt with how kids can receive an allowance for doing chores and save up money to buy something they want (though it went off the rails when the 3 Umi superheroes decided to go out, get jobs and make enough money to help this kid, David, buy a bike he desperately wants. I mean, isn’t that going against the episode’s initial lesson? David just sits back and collects his money while others do the work for him. But I digress).

Orange bills represented “Umi dollars” and Bot, a tiny robot hero, would collect the bills in his “robo money counter” which vacuumed up the currency and stacked it in a glass pitcher. By the time they were halfway through in their quest to collect 52 Umi bucks for lazy David, the pitcher looked like it held some orange liquid. This led to me pausing the TV as Sienna ran around the room all excited, spouting what’s going to happen once they fill the pitcher.

“Daddy! They have to keep doing the jobs because after they get all the money they can make money soup!!”

The girl was literally bouncing with this idea, eyes wide, hands flailing. It was as if she’d discovered how to turn lead into gold.

“Soup?” I said, “And then what are they going to do?”

She put on a killer smile, balled up her fists and jumped.

“They’ll add chocolate coins!!!”

And I belly-laughed because her idea was utterly brilliant and imaginative. I belly-laughed because my 4-year-old daughter made this shrewd, complex, whimsical connection between “money soup” and “chocolate coins.” I belly-laughed because it was so adorable, my 4-year-old girl wearing a pony tail and pink hair clips shaped like bows, big brown eyes as animated as I’d ever seen them, body taut as if it was a kernel ready to pop all over this idea only a toddler would form. And the next thing I knew Sienna had buried her head in a pillow on the couch, her body now slack.

“Sienna? Sienna? What’s wrong?”

She looked up from the pillow, a face drooping with devastation, her once glittering eyes now on the verge of tears.

“Sienna,” I said softly, “I wasn’t laughing at you. You said something so smart and perfect that it made me laugh. Come here.”

She crawled into my lap and I held her repeatedly trying to explain the difference between laughing at someone and laughing with someone, but it wasn’t working so I called to Elaine for help.

Elaine picked her up and Sienna pushed her head into the crux between her mommy’s neck and shoulder. As Mommy tried to explain that the chocolate coin connection was something so intelligent it was beyond her 4 years and led to my laughter – good laughter, fun laughter – Sienna would peek at me, her face drained of toddler joy.

My mind raced a bit. Anxiety. Sienna’s displaying anxiety. Is she getting it from me?

Despite each of us taking turns trying to explain the nuances of laughter, Sienna remained sad and eventually sat in Elaine’s lap on the couch. We put the TV back on and since it was near night-night, Elaine removed the pink bows from Sienna’s hair.

“Can I wear them tomorrow,” Sienna asked?

“Of course,” Elaine said.

“Will Miss Ilene laugh at me?”

This took both Elaine and I by surprise. Our eyes locked. We reassured her that of course Miss Ilene wouldn’t laugh at her; quite the opposite. I even imitated Miss Ilene, arms outstretched, greeting Sienna with an exuberant, “You look so BEAUTIFUL!!” Finally a smile and a giggle. Finally some pride.

Again my mind raced: Is someone bullying her at Pre-K? Laughing at her? Making fun of her?

I’d asked Miss Ilene about this during parent-teacher conference and she said that they’re extremely strict about such things, that there are consequences for such actions and that they teach that it’s not nice to laugh at anyone or make fun of others or hit or bully or do any such thing. My childhood eventually led to anxiety and depression.

I was an overly sensitive child (and I still am as an adult). I was bullied by my dad (he’s no longer like that) and my classmates. But I can’t remember saying something that made my parents laugh which led to devastation on my part.

Elaine too was an overly sensitive child and does recall experiences exactly like Sienna’s where she’d say something smart, the adults would laugh and she’d be crushed thinking that they were laughing at her. She says she learned the subtleties of laughter over time. Elaine also battles anxiety and depression, though she had much harsher life than me and bullying actually made her stronger.

My mind continued to race: The diseases of anxiety and depression run in families. Sienna is overly sensitive. Is she exhibiting early signs? Or is she just a sensitive kid unable to distinguish between different types of laughter?

All I can do is monitor her behavior, ask what’s going on at school; what’s going through her mind; how does she feel. Is she happy? I she sad? Angry? All I can do is watch and be ready to explain that laughter comes in many forms – some good, some bad – and reinforce that as her daddy, I would NEVER laugh at my one and only Sienna. Laugh with her, sure, but laugh at her, never. And hope that she’ll eventually understand before any damage occurs.

How do your children react to laughter? Are they able to distinguish different kinds? Do they get confused and sensitive? How do you teach your children about laughter and its complexities? I’d love to know because it might help me in my journey as a dad.


One thought on “Can Your Toddler Understand The Complexities Of Laughter?

  1. Permalink  ⋅ Reply


    June 1, 2016 at 6:14pm

    Kids often don’t get humor – I think you’re right about that.
    The part that surprises me is that even after you and your wife explained it she still was sad/upset. I’m not surprised that she didn’t like but the reaction seems excessive. I don’t blame you for being concerned about it.

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